Today was a real treat as I was able to spend three hours this morning involved in a Horticultural Symposium hosted by Michael McCoy, a first for me. Michael had curated a rich and diverse lineup of speakers, including Fergus Garret, Ed Flint, Sophie Thomson, Jimi Blake, Donna Somerville, and Casein Schmidt. To say it was inspiring is a colossal understatement; it was a highly informative, thought-provoking, and fantastic way to reflect on the joy of gardening and be inspired and challenged.
There’s nothing quite like listening to conversations and being with like-minded people who not only have the same passion but are so generous in sharing their knowledge. I am sure over the weeks ahead, the ingenuity these extraordinary gardeners so freely shared with us will create ongoing new ideas for our own gardens.
One point in all the discussions was around the notion of how gardeners ‘harvest the joy’ from their gardens? All spoke of taking the time to observe and look as being integral to their success. It is a time to relax and enjoy but observing is also a tool that allows gardeners to immerse themselves consistently within the garden over days, weeks, months and even decades and thereby read the garden.
The act of observing or looking at the garden and being able to work out what you are looking at and why it is looking good (or not) is a requisite of successful gardening. All presenters mentioned this point in various ways throughout the talks. I’ve taken away many fascinating ideas, and I’ve many hours of extended interviews to listen to that were not used in the symposium. So, this week will be a great chance to hear more and be further inspired.
So far, I’ve delved more deeply into the talks with Donna Somerville, who has been tending beautiful private gardens in Victoria for thirty years and English horticulturist Fergus Gareth, head gardener at Great Dixter in the UK.
Donna recommends taking a good walk around the garden for 10-15 minutes to observe and appraise what needs to happen each day. As is often the case, I know from my own experience that when you head into the garden with a list of what is going to be done on any given day, only to find something else takes your eye and is more important to do, something has happened that requires attention or you simply start fixing something and hours go by before you realise. We all have our ways of dealing with issues; she calls it her intensive care unit, which is fundamental to the garden’s success, be they self-administered or people we can call on to come into action for problems like irrigation, pests or fallen trees etc.
Similarly, Fergus talked about whether you, a team of gardeners or whoever works in the garden with you, take the time to walk around the garden and take it in. The process is important even when busy because it will make you more efficient in the long run. Look at things and talk, laugh and enjoy the moment. Time spent on observation and reflection is never wasted. Discuss what you see and how you can improve it, and enjoy the garden for what it is without always being critical. Otherwise, all you are doing is maintaining the garden and never going beyond that.
Listening to Gareth and Michael’s conversation was utterly awe-inspiring. At Dixter, although there are four full-time gardeners and four full-time assistants, some areas boast eight different levels of planting that come out in succession. Indeed, something to aspire to!
Another take-home point I appreciated was made by Ed Flint. Ed is the head gardener for a private family garden in the UK with extensive mixed plantings, woodlands, meadows, vegetables and cut flower gardens. I will share more of his incredible talk later. One aspect worth mentioning pertinent to home gardeners is all those small actions we do whilst gardening and nurturing plants that appear to be so insignificant but are, in essence, what gardening is. It’s not the large grand gestures but all the small acts that incrementally build until you have something you envisaged and created from all those small actions. Ed was fascinating, and also mentioned the aspect of time spent reading the garden.
Ed thinks people spend too much time fiddling rather than being immersive in the garden. When we go out and just stand there looking and thinking, wow this is good or I did that well. And in the same vein, there is nothing more deflating than feeling proud of the outcome of hundreds of small, small actions only to find that you show it to someone and they don’t get it, dislike it or plainly ignore it. So he suggests taking your time to look and see things because if you don’t appreciate and get a hit from your own garden then no one else will give it to you.
And remember every garden has different circumstances, available time and equipment and everyone’s garden has its own unique soil and climate so the most important thing is to find a system that works for you and what you want to achieve. After all, it’s a very personal, a garden, and you have to like what you are doing.
So much of contemporary gardening is about doing less but it all equates to the desired outcome. There are many ways to garden with little or no maintenance but high difficulty or demand-driven gardens reap massive rewards because, we get out what we put in so why not do something interesting, unique and different. According to all these amazing gardeners that is how we get good at it.
Well, for what it’s worth I hope these gardeners have also inspired you to walk in the garden and look, learn to see, to read the garden and take a moment to enjoy!
Title quote by Richard W Langer
Content Di Baker – inspired by Ed Flint, Gareth Fergus, and Donna Sommerville from High Horticultural Symposium hosted by Michael McCoy 2022
Garden paintings from The Elegant Garden Cafe or Garden Paintings by Monet & Famous Artists on FB
Header image painting by Jacob Aguiar